We woke at 4:10 Wednesday morning to leave with Tony the tuk-tuk driver at 5:00 so we could see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. I certainly wasn’t the only one with that clever idea. A procession of people laden with cameras and day packs, wearing hiking boots or all-terrain sandals, filed across the pathway crossing the moat protecting the thousand-year-old temple complex. A cloudy haze meant the promised spectacular view of the sun climbing from behind the five-tower complex never happened, but at least we had a good head start on the day.
After exploring the Angkor Wat temple, Colin and I both admitted it wasn’t quite what we’d been expecting. The bas-reliefs that have withstood time, pillagers, and, for the last 15-ish years, tourists are a marvel, but Colin expected the towers to be taller and I thought they would be more jungle-y.
Wikipedia told us that the reason the bas-reliefs are in the great condition they are is because the moat around Angkor Wat prevents the jungle from encroaching with its charming, albeit destructive, vines and roots.
Tony took us to Angkor Thom next. Angkor Thom means great city, and it is rightly the largest complex in the area. He dropped us at the Bayon in the center, and the structure, dedicated to Buddhism, was more what Colin and I had pictured. The four-foot-tall Buddha faces stared serenely in every direction from the heights of their crumbling towers, while a few men, Colin among them, climbed the impossibly steep steps to get a closer look.
From the Bayon, we wandered trhough the 95-degree heat to see Phimeanakas, once a royal Hindu alter, before a 16-year-old local led us to a temple not listed in the book. Great thitpok trees grew out of the first level, and for several minutes, no one was around to appreciate the charming temple except us and the butterflies.
We walked back to find the Temple of Elephants, its bas-reliefs depicting not battle scenes or images from Hell as Angkor Wat had, but rows of giant elephants.
Even though it had been really neat, Angkor Thom hadn’t lived up to the jungle-y image I’d had in mind for Angkor Wat. The guide book promised a few other complexes with authentic jungle feel, and Tony agreed to take us to the best one for another $5.
Ta Prohm didn’t disappoint. The same giant trees from our quiet unnamed temple had taken over the complex, with thick white roots breaking through the stone work and several piles of crumbled walls for Colin to climb on.
We remarked how these bits of thousand-year-old engraved wall could easily be at home in a museum, but instead we were trampling all over them.
We were headed back to the hotel, exhausted, by 3. As tired as we were, I wished we had rented bicycles and seen the area that way. It was awfully hot, but flat as a pancake and totally doable. Take note, friends who have yet to visit Angkor Wat: rent a bike.